by Sam Chandler
All signs pointed to a downward spiral.
Midway through its 2016 season last September, the Spain Park High School football team entered its bye week with a 3-2 record after dropping consecutive games to Hoover and Mountain Brook.
A year prior, the Jags had dropped only two games all season, and one came against McGill- Toolen in the Class 7A state championship.
But the Jags righted the ship.
Led by a veteran defense and capable offense, Spain Park clicked off five straight wins to clinch a playoff berth last fall. It fell to James Clemens in the first round, 21-12, and finished the season 8-3.
“You always want to win at least one playoff game, but that’s hard to do,” said Shawn Raney, the Jags’ fifth-year head coach.
It may become even more diffi cult this season. Spain Park graduated the majority of its defense, which consisted largely of two- and three-year starters, along with its entire offensive line. Both areas have served as the strength of the team in recent years.
This fall, Raney expects the power pendulum to swing in favor of his offensive skill players. Though the group lost leading rusher Larry Wooden to graduation, most key positions return with at least minimal varsity experience.
Raney expects this talent, highlighted by senior quarterback Braxton Barker, to carry his team until its young defense can find its footing.
That will need to happen sooner rather than later if the Jags want to realize a trip to the postseason for a third straight year.
“There a lot of different variables into what makes a good team, especially at the high school level,” Raney said. “I think if they’ll listen to us and do what we tell them to do, we’ve always got a chance.”
Barker split time at quarterback last season with then-senior Hunter Howell. Now, this unit is his, and he’ll call on his experience.
Barker started the final few games of 2016 in relief of Howell, including the road playoff contest at James Clemens.
“It’ll be huge for us that he got snaps last year,” Raney said.
Barker, son of former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, provides his team with versatility under center. He has the arm to air it out and the legs to scramble. He also has size. The signal-caller has added length and strength to his 6-foot frame, having sprouted more than 2 inches since last season.
Spain Park returns one of Barker’s favorite targets from a year ago in Jalen McMillan, a 6-foot-1 wideout with breakaway speed. McMillan and Barker connected frequently in 2016 and appeared to be on the same wavelength this summer.
McMillan spearheads a receiving corps that will also include juniors M.J. Rogers, Kenyon Hines and Jo Jo Dennis.
At tailback, senior D’Arie Johnson will take over the starting duties following Wooden’s departure. Johnson played a considerable amount last season, and he runs with an ideal combination of speed and power. Jalen Henderson, a junior, will run behind Johnson. He played fullback in 2016 and will form the second half of Spain Park’s traditional 1-2 punch in the ground game.
“You’ve got to run it to win it,” Raney said.
There are questions as to who will block for Barker, Johnson and Henderson, as the offense lost its line. But Barker said he feels confi dent that younger guys will step up throughout the season.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good this year,” Barker said.
It’s never easy to lose a senior class, especially one as chiseled defensively as Spain Park’s was in 2016. The defensive line lost critical cogs in Douglas Henze and Damon Wright, while Houston Hollis and Josiah Johnson departed at linebacker. Only cornerback Braxton Hall, a junior, returns in a depleted secondary.
“We’ll be young everywhere on defense, so that will be a growing process throughout,” Raney said. “I think we’ve gotten better over there through the summer, but it’s going to take some time for those kids to gain the experience.”
Cedric Tooson and Jacob Pughsley are candidates to fill key gaps left on the line. Pughsley gained playing time last year, and Raney said Tooson has the potential to take on a leadership role.
Hayes Cole, a senior linebacker, does too, and will likely anchor the linebacking corps. Apart from Hall at corner, Raney said position battles in the secondary brewed throughout the summer.
Cole Starr, a senior, returns as Spain Park’s place-kicker, and he could perform punts as well, depending on personnel. Starr is a soccer player who emerged last season as a reliable asset on extra points, field goals and kickoffs.
In October, he clinched the Jags’ playoff berth by booting a game-winning field goal from 37 yards.
“Cole’s got some experience, and his leg’s gotten stronger,” Raney said. “I feel good about him.”
Spain Park head coach Shawn Raney said junior Cedric Tooson (24) has the potential to take on a leadership role along the defensive line. Photo by Ted Melton.
Head coach: Shawn Raney
Overall record: 34-12
Tenure: 5th season
Offensive Coordinator: Marty Rozell
Offensive Line: Chris Bell
Wide Receivers: Ryan Thompson
Tight Ends: Keat Litton
Running Backs: Bob Bietighofer
Defensive Backs/Special Teams: Brian Maner
Linebackers: Eric Gibbons
Defensive Line: Jason Hamlin
Linebackers: Darrius Taylor
Athletic Trainer: John Hardin